With the eyes of the world trained on her, incoming Auburn freshman Sunisa Lee rose to the occasion and delivered in spectacular fashion, taking home a gold medal in the women's individual all-around competition last week to extend the U.S. run of golds into the event to five.
Lee, the first Hmong-American to win an Olympic medal, spoke to reporters in the mixed zone after capturing the gold.
"It feels super crazy," she said. "I definitely didn't think I'd be here in this moment with the gold medal. I definitely haven't let it sink in yet as I feel like it's just not real life."
Lee also stepped up her game when Simone Biles withdrew from the team competition due to the "twisties," a dangerous situation where gymnasts lose their sense of space and control of their bodies while in mid-air. Lee opted to perform a more difficult routine on the uneven bars to get a higher score and also stepped into the rotation on the floor, putting together a solid routine and securing the U.S. a place on the podium with a silver medal.
"It was a lot to take in, just because I was coming in to take a silver spot, but I feel like I just kind of went out there and did it for myself," she said.
Lee has had to overcome several challenges over the past few years, including injuries, losing family members to Covid-19 and dealing with an accident in 2019 that left her father, John, paralyzed from the waist down.
Shortly after her dad's accident, Lee shined at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, winning gold on her signature event, the uneven bars, as well as a bronze on floor and a silver in the all-around competition.
After Biles withdrew from the team and all-around competitions, Lee likely felt more pressure to deliver, said Jeff Graba, Auburn's gymnastics coach and twin brother of Lee's current coach, Jess Graba, at Midwest Gymnastics.
"All the eyes are on her now, and she's carrying the hopes and dreams of USA Gymnastics to try to keep the streak going," said Graba after Lee won the gold last week. "It's a big deal that she is capable of carrying that load. But, you know, she's had a real tough three or four years. She's been through a lot, and she always seems to rise to the occasion and persevere."
Graba is hoping Lee continues to rise to the occasion when she arrives at Auburn, where he confirmed that she is officially enrolled. She is set to arrive on the Plains shortly after the Olympics ends.
With the advent of the era where college athletes can profit off their name, image and likeness, Lee won't have to make the difficult decision faced by so many former gymnasts — whether to turn professional and capitalize on gymnastics fame or attend college and continue competing. College athletes can do both now.
"Suni, in the past, would have had to go pro. There's just no doubt," said Graba. "And she would have had made that horrible decision. Her career's over then.
"There's no pro league for gymnastics; it's just endorsements. So with name, image and likeness, time permitting, she should be able to make as much money as she would have normally made, but also be able to extend her career, go to college and, hopefully, make another run for another world championship team or another Olympics in the future because she's capable of continuing to train."
Lee is expected to be one of the highest-compensated athletes in college sports, and Graba said he had prepared for her to enter college as an Olympic medalist and all that entails.
"We knew that her world, at least this fall, is going to be crazy," said Graba, who has had multiple conversations with his brother about Lee's options.
"We had some really good conversations about options moving forward, so obviously she's going to have to work with an agent at some point here and get through the whole system," said Graba. "Our compliance department has worked with her on how to legally do that, and we're just preparing for anything that's possible. That's anything from online classes to full-speed enrollment. I think full-speed enrollment on campus the whole time is possibly out of the question right now. She's going to be pretty busy."
Whatever the future may hold, Lee is now well-positioned to take up the role as the leader and face of Team USA leading up to the next Olympic games in 2024 in Paris.
"Her personality is perfect for that," said Graba. "She's fully capable of bearing the weight of the world on her shoulders. She is capable of being that person."